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[whitespace] Josh Silvers Perfect pair: Chef Josh Silvers of Syrah will team up with old friends to pair food with the wines of the Russian River appellation.

Photograph by Rory MacNamara

Local Flavor

Chefs prepare for showcase foodie event

By Paula Harris

THE SONOMA COUNTY Showcase of Wine and Food 2001 signature event "The Taste of Sonoma County," happening Saturday at the gloriously landscaped Richard's Grove and Saralee's Vineyard in Windsor, is the sort of gourmet extravaganza that makes your taste buds reel, your mouth water, and your wallet go into cardiac shock.

And foodies, winers, locals, and day-trippers love it.

Last year minivans whisked in epicures, wine connoisseurs, and all the rest to a veritable (though civilized--no drunken brawls here) feeding frenzy as some 1,100 event-goers drooled at the bounty awaiting them in the shady white-tented pavilions.

It was a joyous summertime clash of straw sun hats, designer shades, and Hawaiian print shirts brushing floral shoulders as their wearers wielded clear plastic food trays and souvenir wine glasses. Across the banquet tables, caterers scrambled to plate the elaborate tapas-sized hors d'oeuvres and pour the seemingly never-ending flow of ultra-premium wines. The ambiance was festive--the moods set to a pleasant vino-induced buzz, the stomachs slowly filling.

Last year's exotic munchies included poached scallops lounging on Asian pears, heirloom potatoes decorated with shaved truffles, and slivers of Liberty duck, salmon, and lobster mini "burgers" atop tiny aïoli-smeared buns.

This year promises to top it with even more participants. "There are going to be more wineries and more attendees," avers showcase director Michelle Danzer. At presstime, according to Danzer, the number of tickets sold for the Taste of Sonoma County event are reaching 13,000 (with tickets still available).

On Saturday, more than 70 vintners and 40 local and national chefs will offer more epicurean excess inside four pavilions--one for each of the appellations of the Russian River Valley, the Alexander Valley, the Dry Creek Valley, and Sonoma/ Carneros. This year the extravagant presentations of Sonoma County edible products will focus on Mediterranean flavors.

The Taste of Sonoma County and a separate event later in the evening--an al fresco concert by the San Francisco Symphony and country-swing legends Asleep at the Wheel at Sonoma-Cutrer Winery--are the culmination of a heady three-day stint of grape-and-gourmet-related revelry.

THE SONOMA County Showcase of Wine and Food, sponsored by the Sonoma County Wineries Association, is the county's answer to the prestigious and pricey Napa Wine Auction, which last month raised $7.6 million for charity.

In contrast, last year the Sonoma County barrel and silent auctions raised some $446,000. Though its scale and prices trail the Napa event, the Sonoma County showcase (which also features appellation tours, winery dinners, a golf tournament, and more) is certainly a splurge. This year, some visitors will be shelling out $735 per person for a three-day event package. Entrance to the Taste of Sonoma County is $150 a pop.

The showcase raises money for anti-hunger programs Share Our Strength and the Redwood Empire Food Bank. And while some sweat it out sprinting, bicycling, or swimming for charity (as in the grueling Vineman and Ironman triathlons), these folks raise dough by running around the kitchen.

Josh Silvers, chef owner of Santa Rosa's Syrah restaurant, who last year served up house-cured salmon with homemade crackers at the Taste event, says he's been inspired this year to offer up corn and crab cakes with lemon poppy seed slaw and chunky tartare sauce. "It's a blast," Silvers says of the event, adding that he's is looking forward to sharing space in the Russian River appellation pavilion with his old cooking buddies, chefs Ray Tang of Mariposa restaurant in Windsor and Jesse Malgren of Madrona Manor in Healdsburg.

With the crab cakes, Silvers recommends a dry rosé. "It's summer in a glass," he enthuses. "Not a sickly, fruity white zin, but one that's bone dry."

Silvers is so enamored of the varietal, he plans to offer seven styles in his restaurant.

As for other food and wine combos, Silvers recommends pinot noir for fish, chicken, and light meats; and syrah for grilled lamb, steak, bacon-tinged sauces, and barbecued burgers.

HOWEVER, not everyone is so content with the event. Some local chefs wonder why national chefs are participating while some local cooks have been passed over. Chef Derek McCarthy of Healdsburg's popular 1-year-old Tastings Restaurant mentions that he wasn't invited to participate. "I guess it's an invitation situation and the more you're out there, the more people will take notice," he says. "I guess it's just a matter of time."

Showcase director Danzer explains that five national chefs, plus two from San Francisco, are being brought in by the national charity Share Our Strength and by the event's sponsor, Food and Wine magazine. All the rest are from Sonoma County. "We send out letters of invitation requesting attendance," she says. "We try to coordinate it so we go all over the county, but space is limited."

If finances are also limited in your own wallet, chefs say, it's easy to put together your own food and wine pairing session on your own patio or around the backyard barbecue grill.

Sondra Bernstein--owner of Sonoma's Girl and the Fig and Glen Ellen's Girl and the Gaucho--who says she may be going to the event as a guest, agrees that a rosé as dry as John Cleese's humor is a good choice for a sizzling day. "Try it with grilled prawns--grill them right on the barbecue and drizzle them with perfumey basil oil or pepper oil," she advises. "The coolness of the wine will balance everything."

And McCarthy, although not participating, is happy to share his recommendation. "It's a mahi mahi ceviche with mango, melon, lemon, and lime paired with viognier," he says. "You can pair it with the Preston, which is from Sonoma County."

Of course (don't tell the showcase organizers), you can venture out of Sonoma County for your own summer tasting shindig. Bernstein reveals she's discovered that albarino, a white wine made with grapes grown in the northwest of Spain in Galicia, is a good marriage with steamed clams, ceviche, and fresh fruit salad. "It's the ultimate hot-day pairing," she says. "Try it at home."

But for those who venture to the showcase events this weekend, Danzer has some final advice. "I want people to learn about Sonoma County, not just that it's a world-class wine-growing region, but that it has great chefs and products," she says. "I want them to have a good time and leave educated--oh, and happy."

Weekend Whirl

The snazzy Sonoma County Showcase of Wine and Food is a three-day blowout highlighting the highlife here in wineland. The event is sponsored by the Sonoma Wineries Foundation, and proceeds benefit anti-hunger programs Share Our Strength and the Redwood Empire Food Bank. Prices are per person. Here's the rundown:

  • Thursday, July 12, from 3 to 11 p.m. Appellation Tours and Winery Dinners. Guests tour various appellations of Sonoma County and mingle with growers and vintners at four wineries (Chateau Souverain, Gallo of Sonoma, Imagery Winery, and Dutton Ranch). Includes barrel tasting, tours, and dinner. $155.

  • Thursday, July 12, Golf Tournament at Windsor Golf Club. Participation is limited, call (see below) for details. $150.

  • Friday, July 13, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., winery luncheons at various locations. $75.

  • Friday, July 13, from 4:30 to 11 p.m. Gala Dinner and Barrel Auction at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center. Bid, sample wines, and enjoy a multicourse meal prepared by five prominent Sonoma County chefs. $225.

  • Saturday, July 14, from noon to 5 p.m. The Taste of Sonoma County--signature event highlighting the foods and wines of the county. Plus cooking demonstrations and a silent auction. At Richard's Grove and Saralee's Vineyard in Windsor. $150.

  • Saturday, July 14, from 6:30 to 11 p.m. The San Francisco Symphony culminates the weekend's events in an evening concert on the lawns of Sonoma-Cutrer Winery. Following the concert will be a fireworks display and dancing to live western swing music by Asleep at the Wheel. $95.

    For more information, call 800/939-7666 or log into www.sonomawine.com.

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  • From the July 12-18, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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